Review of Rutgers Big Ten play as schedule heats up

The Rutgers football team is heading into its full eight-game Big Ten schedule this upcoming weekend, as Indiana makes its way to Stadium on Saturday. 

The Scarlet Knights have already played a Big Ten team in No. 4 Ohio State earlier this season, but that was an all but forgettable game that was basically over before it started, ending in a 52-3 rout for the Buckeyes.

Rutgers has not had the easiest time competing in the Big Ten since it joined in 2014, and has had an especially difficult time once head coach Chris Ash took the reins of the program in 2016. 

In 2014, when the Knights were run by former head coach Kyle Flood, the team showed some promise for their first year in the new conference, going 3-5 in Big Ten play, while winning all its non-conference games as well to go 7-5 on the season and reach the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl against North Carolina — Rutgers romped the Tar Heels in that one, 40-21.

After the infamous conference opening loss to Penn State, the Knights picked up their first Big Ten win over Michigan — a team now ranked No. 14 in the country. 

Alumnus quarterback Gary Nova had one of the best performances of his career against the Wolverines that night, throwing for a career-high 404 yards and 3 touchdowns. Alumnus defensive end and current Indianapolis Colt Kemoko Turay clinched the victory for Rutgers when he blocked a potential game winning field goal from 56 yards out and 3:01 on the clock.

The next three game conference games were tough to watch for all parties involved. The Knights lost all three contests by a combined score of 135-41 to Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

But then, Rutgers turned things around, winning the last 2 of 3 games to end the season over the Hoosiers and Maryland. The Knights took out Indiana on Senior Day, cruising to a 45-23 win. Then, in the season finale in College Park, Rutgers pulled off a stunner, as the Knights upset the Terrapins, 41-38, to secure their third conference win of the season.

Rutgers pulled off the biggest comeback in school history after being down 35-10 near the end of the second quarter. Nova led a trio of alumni receivers to becoming the first group of three receivers to each record 100 yards in a game.

Something must have changed in the Piscataway water after the Quick Lane Bowl, because the Knights followed up their inaugural campaign with a 1-7 conference record in 2015. That season itself was a disaster overall, specifically due to the Flood email scandal and his eventual firing.

Rutgers went 2-1 in early non-conference play and lost to the Nittany Lions to start the season 2-2 before the slate of Big Ten games. 

The Knights did manage to escape Bloomington, Ind. with a 55-52 win over the Hoosiers in the second game of that schedule after losing to Michigan State a week before, but they then proceeded to lose the remaining five conference games — Rutgers did defeat Army in the second to last game of the season.

After Flood was relieved of his duties and Ash was introduced as head coach, Ash knew from the start that this would be a rebuilding process and that it would take time.

“We came in with a three- or four-year plan and I think we’re right on pace for that. Year one, it is what it is. We were trying to build a culture, set standards, fix some issues,” Ash said to the media during training camp this summer.

Year one was what it was … one of the worst seasons in program history. The Knights lost their season opener to then-No. 14 Washington — nothing too alarming about that — before beating Howard and New Mexico to start the season 2-1.

But that is when disaster hit. Rutgers lost nine straight games to end the season, going 0-8 on the season against the Big Ten in Ash’s first season. 

Combined, the Knights gave up 326 points to their conference foes, while only scoring 54 points of their own. Additionally, Rutgers was shut out four times in those games, suffering losses of 58-0, 78-0, 49-0 and 39-0 to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, respectively.

The Knights regrouped a season later and showed some improvement, adding another two wins to their overall record at 4-8, and also picked up Ash’s first three wins in the Big Ten with Rutgers. 

“Year two we wanted to improve (and) I think we were able to do that,” Ash said.

After going 1-2 in non-conference play, including another loss to an improved then-No. 8 Huskies squad, it took the Knights three games to pick up their first Big Ten win under Ash’s supervision.

Then-junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno threw 5-10 for 89 yards and was sacked once, while the running back duo of alumnus Gus Edwards and then-freshman Raheem Blackshear carried the load for Rutgers in its 35-24 win over Illinois — Edwards and Blackshear combined for 178 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The Knights had a similar showing against Purdue a game later, this time narrowly getting a 14-12 victory after Rescigno went 9-18 for 87 yards and a touchdown, and Edwards ran for 94 yards and a touchdown.

Possibly the best win of Ash’s short career on the Banks came near the end of the season, when Rutgers took down Maryland, 31-24 in front of the Knight faithful. Rescigno killed it for Rutgers that day, throwing 8-17 for 107 yards and a touchdown, but also rushing for 54 yards and a touchdown.

Back in the present, after a rough showing from a depleted and beaten team, the Knights' chances of making a bowl game are next to gone, and there are even whispers of a potential 1-11 finish. 

Indiana will prove to be a challenge for Rutgers this weekend after coming into the matchup off a tough loss to the Spartans. But, Ash and the Knights are still confident in their team.

“We have to play better, and again do some of the things I'm talking about, not beat ourselves, mental toughness, execution, to be able to have a chance to win that game,” Ash said at a press conference on Monday.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @cgreen204 and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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